Van Hollen talks overdose, drug issues with locals
Addiction: ‘It gets very dark’
While opioid addiction in St. Mary’s County and around the nation is at epidemic levels, there is still hope as people have made it out and into recovery.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) last week visited Walden’s Beacon of Hope Recovery and Wellness Center in Lexington Park and heard from two women who are in recovery and are now helping others struggling with addiction.
Walden and other healthcare officials view addiction as a brain disease and a chronic illness — not a moral failing, Kathleen O’Brien, Walden director, said.
“We’ve seen a huge spike in addiction … in Maryland and around the country,” Van Hollen said.
“Our use is up,” St. Mary’s County Health Officer Dr. Meena Brewster said of heroin and opioids, although the number of overdose fatalities here has decreased recently, one of only three jurisdictions in Maryland to see that trend.
“What’s emerging most acutely now is fentanyl and heroin,” Brewster said.
There have been 14 overdose deaths this year in St. Mary’s County, Sheriff Tim Cameron (R) said, and eight of those involved fentanyl or a mix.
The introduction of opiates has changed the fabric of the community, O’Brien said. “We never thought we’d have a heroin issue.”
Opioid addiction used to be prescription abuse, but now heroin is cheaper and more available, said Laura Webb, recovery support director at the Beacon of Hope center.
Heroin is a “significant public health crisis,” Brewster said. Overdoses from heroin are now commonplace, but Narcan and naloxone are saving lives, she said.
“Every day here,” Cameron agreed. Sheriff’s deputies and rescue squads carry Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
St. Mary’s has a continuum of care for addiction, O’Brien said, with multiple partnerships between Walden, the sheriff’s office, MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital and the health department.
“It’s great cooperation,” said Cameron, who oversees the county jail where there are many inmates who are addicted to opioids.
“But everything that we have is at risk if Medicaid was impacted negatively,” O’Brien said, adding that the federal health care program provides 85 percent of funding for Walden. Recovery services are still funded by grants, though.
“In this little corner of the world as difficult as it is, I think we have a lot of the pieces, but then they always seem to be at risk,” O’Brien said. “You’re right here where it all happens,” she told Van Hollen.
Staff at the Beacon of Hope’s recovery center have actual experience with addiction.
Sara Tawney, 27, went through the county’s drug court and came to Walden four years ago. “Things don’t just change overnight. It takes time. And there’s different levels to recovery and Walden has been there,” she said. Tawney is now a recovery coach and peer continuing care specialist.
She said she was an opioid addict who got in trouble when she was pulled over by the police for driving under the influence.
Tawney’s baby died in 2006, and she was prescribed pain killers. “They kept giving me prescriptions and I just kept taking them. That’s how it started and it just progressed. It’s all fun until it’s not fun anymore,” she said. “It gets very dark.”
Drug court and Walden have “taught me now to live differently,” she said.
The Beacon of Hope recovery center provides a place where people can come and talk about their problems and hear advice from other addicts in recovery, Tawney said.
Amanda Kohut, 27, came to Walden twice in two years and wasn’t successful at first in recovery. She went to another facility in Maryland and entered a 12-step program.
Addiction is “a shamebased illness,” O’Brien said, so sometimes it’s productive for a person to try recovery in a different location where they are a stranger.
“And that’s what it was,” Kohut said. “I’d been to Walden so many times I didn’t want to go back and show my face again, so I ended up going out of the county.”
And then there is a continuing stigma for those in recovery, she said. She can’t qualify for a rental apartment because of her background, she said, and some automatically think you are a bad person if you suffered from addiction.
And it often takes a lot more than being in trouble with the law to stay clean, she said.
In recovery, “We have the chance to see the world with new eyes,” Tawney said. “I think recovery is a beautiful thing.”
But even in recovery, there can be a stigma for those who are going through it with the help of medication such as methadone or Suboxone, she said.
People would not criticize a diabetic for using insulin, O’Brien said. “We need to continue to educate about how this is a brain disease.”
For decades in the United States, “it’s been the war on drugs,” she said. “It’s been unfair for ever yone working hard on it.”
“I think it needs to be viewed in the health lens as well,” Van Hollen said.
Kathleen O’Brien, left, director of Walden, greets Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) on Monday at the Beacon of Hope Recovery and Wellness Center in Lexington Park where officials discussed the epidemic of opioid addiction.